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Column Fri Oct 10 2014

The Judge, Dracula Untold, Kill the Messenger, You're Not You, Pride, 50th Chicago International Film Festival Preview & Music Box of Horrors 2014 Preview


The Judge

If you ever wanted to see the legendary Robert Duvall shit himself like only he can (literally and figuratively), then I've got a movie for you. And I'm not talking about catching a brief glimpse of mild discoloration in his boxers. Oh, no. I'm talking wet, dark, splattering crap exploding out of his ass and onto the white bathroom tile, as well as the feet of his estranged son (Robert Downey Jr.). Come gather 'round, children, and let me tell you about The Judge.

Part family drama, part courtroom procedural, part character study, The Judge is the story of hot-shot Chicago lawyer Hank Palmer (Downey), who returns to his smalltown hometown on the occasion of his mother's funeral. Turns out, many years ago, Hank left home mostly to get away from his hard-driving judge father Joseph (Duvall) to prove to him (and the world) that he could be successful. Hank seems to specialize in clients who are undoubtedly guilty, but he still manages to cast his spells over judges and juries to get them off. In one early scene, Hank pees on the shoes of opposing counsel in the men's room, setting up a family history of bodily excretions on other people's shoes.

Once home, Hank isn't exactly given the prodigal-son-returns welcome. His brothers — Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) and the vaguely mentally deficient Dale (Jeremy Strong) — are mildly happy that he came back, but Judge Palmer is ambivalent, even hostile about it. Hank even runs into his old flame, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), providing some of the only engaging moments in the film. The night of mom's funeral, Joseph is involved in an incident in which he may or may not have run down a man on his bike during a rainstorm. And he may or may not have done it on purpose. It becomes clear that the judge doesn't remember the incident or exactly what led up to it, but because he had a history with the deceased, he's arrested and brought up on first-degree murder charges. Let me see, do we know anyone who specializes in these type of cases? What a lucky coincidence!

I suppose the set up to The Judge is passable, but once the investigation begins in earnest, the film starts to become more and more ridiculous and just plain silly. Bits of evidence reveal themselves like clockwork, as if the filmmakers were afraid of letting the case occur like a normal one might. If the audience isn't being made to ooh and aah at regular intervals, the story hardly seems worth telling, I guess. And then we have to endure horseshit family issues and secrets as well, all of which is going to give you whiplash from rolling your eyes so hard. At every turn The Judge take the longest, most winding road to get from Point A to Point B(ullshit), and as a result, the film clocks in at just under 2.5 hours. Enjoy that.

And then there's Downey, whom I love dearly, but he needs to get a new act. Playing yet another variation of Tony Stark, here Downey again feels the need to be the smartest guy in the room with the biggest personality problems. And believe me, The Judge doesn't spare us the smallest detail of what made Hank the heartless prick that he grew up to become, with none of it amounting to anything original or interesting. Downey plays it convincingly enough, but the revelations about his troubling relationship with Judge Dad don't really enlighten us they way a better-written film might have.

Toss in a supporting cast that includes Billy Bob Thornton as the man trying to convict the judge, Dax Sheppard as Hank's local co-counsel, Leighton Meester as the local bartender, and Ken Howard as the judge in Joseph's case, and you've certainly got a bunch of actors trying really hard to make something worthy. Director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, The Change-Up) might be out of his depth with this one. But the true culprit might simply be a screenplay that attempts to cram too much into a single film, and as a result, all of the pieces feel undercooked and unfinished. The movie lingers into sentimentality far too long and often, and eventually it just grows tiresome, almost daring the audience to keep caring about these aggressively dickish characters. And really the last thing I want is to watch a great cast like this shit the bed (not even Robert Duvall). There are simply too many better options this weekend alone to waste your time on The Judge.

Dracula Untold

I'll give the folks at Universal Pictures credit: they've been paying attention. Rather than simply trot out Dracula for the umpteenth reboot, the studio has decided to create an interconnected cinematic universe around its classic monsters, beginning with the world's most famous vampire in Dracula Untold, which feels like a combination of a superhero origin story with "Game of Thrones"-style scope. Rather than drawing Dracula (Luke Evans from The Hobbit series, Fast & Furious 6) as a villain, first-time feature director Gary Shore makes him a heroic figure, fighting for the survival of his Transylvanian people against the invading Turkish hordes, led by Sultan Mehmed (Dominic Cooper from Captain America: The First Avenger), who wish to take 1,000 young boys from Dracula's (real name Vlad) people to turn into child soldiers.

In order to gain enough power to take on the Turks, Vlad travels into the mountains nearby where there is a cave with a monster inside. Turns out, it's actually an ancient vampire (Charles Dance), who grants Vlad vampire powers (and weaknesses) temporarily, but if he drinks any blood, he'll stay that way forever. Assuming the great love for his people and family (including wife Mirena and son Ingress, played respectively by Sarah Gadon and Art Parkinson) will stave off his bloodlust, Vlad takes on the entire Turkish army single handedly using his new power (he gets a lot of millage out of turning his body into a flock of bats).

When it becomes clear that Vlad cannot function during daylight hours, the Turks and those he's protecting begin to suspect his vampiric tricks and adjust their tactics accordingly. And for a PG-13 film, things get rather gory with blood, burning vampires and just general grossness. A bit of the story's drama is undercut by the fact that we know the renamed Dracula will not die, but the filmmakers find other ways to keep us guessing about the fates of other, less interesting characters. Outside of Evans, and possible Dance (a "Game of Thrones" veteran), none of the characters is particularly interesting enough for me to care whether they lived or died.

According to the blurb about Dracula Untold provided by Universal, the film "heralds a ... rebirth of the age of monsters," which I'm fine with, as long as the studio finds a way to incorporate Abbott & Costello. But future monstrous endeavors are going to have to do more than just borrow tropes and ideas from familiar superhero films and fantasy series. There isn't much to get excited about with Dracula Untold other than where things might go from here. I get it, doing something new with vampires today is tough, but there are other monsters in the Universal army that might inspire some original ideas from other filmmakers. Let's hope so. If the idea of this new universe strikes your fancy, you might enjoy this jumping-off point. Otherwise, stick to the more human stories out right now.

Kill the Messenger

Probably the worst thing you could do going into Kill the Messenger is think it's a thriller. While there are certainly many tense moments that will make your stomach tighten and throw your system into a paranoid hyperdrive, the film itself is actually a gripping, true-life drama about Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper man Gary Webb, played with a perfect blend of cocky and modest by Jeremy Renner (The Town, The Hurt Locker, The Avengers), in what is arguably the finest acting he's ever done. Filmmaker Michael Cuesta has taken an almost incomprehensible series of events and made sense of them with a story that works as both a investigative procedural and a portrait of a man made paranoid by the CIA.

Without meaning to, Webb discovers links between drug smugglers bringing cocaine into the inner cities of the United States with the assistance of the CIA, essentially birthing the crack epidemic in this country. After traveling as far as Nicaragua to follow his story, Webb writes an epic, multi-part exposé for his second-tier newspaper, scooping major outlets like the LA Times and The Washington Times, both of which are so pissed that this nobody beat them at their own game, they target him and his facts for intense investigation. In one instant, he's the talk and hero of the town; not long after, he's a pariah in the eyes of the institution of journalism. Meanwhile, the CIA subtly feeds details of Webb's life (including an affair years earlier) to various media outlets, who lap it up and ignore the real story.

Cuesta wisely casts many familiar faces in supporting parts so we can keep track of who's who in this web on intrigue and conspiracy. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, Rosemarie DeWitt, Barry Pepper, Tim Blake Nelson, Ray Liotta (in one of his best creepy roles in quite some time), Michael K. Williams, Michael Sheen, Paz Vega and Robert Patrick are all in this film in roles of various sizes and importance, and they're all solid. Winstead is particularly good as Webb's editor, who acts as something of a buffer between him and the newspaper brass until she can't any longer.

The film's second half is where the scariest material creeps in, and we begin to see the impact these allegations against Webb had on his career, family life and reputation. Kill the Messenger is messy, smart look at human behavior and just how unjust and cruel a place the world can be to someone dedicated to telling the truth. Long after it was too late to do any good, the CIA admitted that most of what was in Webb's stories was true. There's something both exciting and desperate about the way Renner captures this man putting his life and perhaps even the safety of his family to the side in order to uncover a great wrong in the world. I wouldn't go so far as to say the film is inspirational, but it might inspire you to question those who say they are here to protect you. Kill the Messenger isn't a thriller; it's more of a horror story. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Kill the Messenger director Michael Cuesta, go to Ain't It Cool News.

You're Not You

This is an odd little film that escaped premiering on the Lifetime network primarily due to a whole lot of bad language. You're Not You centers on Kate, a lovely classical pianist (played by Hilary Swank), who has the perfect life with a handsome husband (Josh Duhamel), envious friends (including Ali Larter) and an expansive, lovely home. But while still in her prime, Kate is diagnosed with ALS (as in the Ice Bucket Challenge charity recipient), which forces her to give up the piano, and leads to a rapid decline in motor skills, which eventually lands her in a wheelchair and in much need of care-taking.

At first, her husband is happy to carry her from her chair to the bathroom to the shower to bed, and otherwise help her out, but Kate start to feel horribly guilty and demands that they get a caregiver during the day while the husband is at work. And while there are better candidates, Kate see potential in college student Bec (Emmy Rossum, playing a character not to far astray from the one she plays in Showtime's "Shameless"), who has no practical experience taking care of herself, let alone another human being. Kate sees her as a fixer-upper, in need of some real-world experience thinking about someone other than herself. Think of You're Not You as My Fair Lady, but depressing. And it's clear that since Kate and her husband never got around to having kids, Bec is something of a surrogate "kid" for her to save from a horrible life of drinking, drugs and horrible men.

Swank has won two Academy Awards, and that isn't a fluke; she earned them with tremendous acting work, so to see her in this role and realize how good she is shouldn't come as a total surprise. Despite her being confined to a wheelchair, it's clear that playing Kate was a physically demanding role that required her to be contorted and exhausted for much of the film. Her speech gradually goes from mild slurring to near incomprehensibility so gradually, you almost don't notice it until people in the film start needing Bec to translate.

But Rossum is also surprisingly strong as a woman finally learning to take Pride in herself, rather than just lashing out at the world and those who want to be good to her. A lovely young man (Jason Ritter) attempts to begin dating her, and she keeps him at a distance while she continues to sleep with a married professor (Julian McMahon). Her avoidance of positive influences gets old after a while, but Rossum makes most of it work. Marcia Gay Harden and Frances Fisher plays Bec and Kate's trainwreck mothers, who want so little to do with the situation between Bec and Kate that they either ignore it or attempt without conversation to stop it. Those scenes seem almost unnecessary and keep us from the far more interesting relationship between these two very different women.

Slightly more interesting than the moms is the presence of Loretta Devine as a fellow ALS patient who Kate meets at the hospital. Devine and her husband (Ernie Hudson) meet Kate and Bec, and the four become friends, bouncing sound advice off each other. The characters are completely unnecessary, but I love love Devine and Hudson, so they get a pass ...barely.

There are certainly some smaller powerful moments in You're Not You, but not quite enough to get me to the finish line. Director George C. Wolfe (working from the book by Michelle Wildgen) doesn't really offer us much more than salty language, pretty faces and a fairly authentic, if predictable, storyline. Swank's aggressively painted performance is almost worth the price of admission if you're a fan of hers; otherwise, you can do better on the emotional powerhouse movie front than this.


As far as feel-good crowd-pleasing British film of late, director Matthew (Simpatico) Warchus' latest Pride has got most of them beat hands down. There are few things I enjoy less than being taught a lesson by a socially relevant film from any nation, but Pride has something going on that seems as important today as it was in 1984, when the events in the movie take place. That doesn't mean there aren't a few cringe-worthy moments when you feel like you're being led by the hand through this true story of a London-based gay and lesbian activists, but most of the film goes beyond simply well-meaning and becomes something special.

The activists in question, living under the uncaring thumb of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, discover that their normal level of police harassment has declined of late, mostly because the striking miners of the nation have been receiving the brunt of the brutality. To show their solidarity, they for a fundraising organization called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, which ended up raising more money for the Union of Mineworkers than pretty much any other group during the strike. They choose as the recipient of their goodwill a small Welsh village, which needless to say doesn't take to them right away. But as the months go on, the grateful villagers (most of them, anyway) form lasting bonds with the colorful outsiders, and the rest is history.

Working from a screenplay by Stephen Beresford, director Warchus almost has it too easy, especially with the cast at hand. Up-and-comer Ben Schnetzer plays Mark, the leader of LGSM, and he's as magnetic an actor as I've seen recently (he'll be prominently featured in the upcoming Warcraft movie as well). He's just gay enough to make the men of the town uncomfortable and the women feel close to, but butch enough that the men come around to befriending him after a short time. In fact, if there was one complaint I had about the film it's that it effectively de-sexualizes the gay characters to make them easier to be accepted.

The story of Pride is actually told through the eyes of a young, still-closeted gay man named Joe (George MacKay), who walks into this situation right as it's taking off. He's far and away the least interesting character in the film, but I think that's somewhat deliberate as he's mostly the observer of these significant events. Far more interesting are supporting characters played by the great Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West and Paddy Considine, perhaps the most remarkable character in the whole film, as the miners' representative who simply accepts the kind help of the LGSM without question and asks his fellow townspeople to do the same, even if it makes him less than popular for a time.

Pride makes the amateur mistake of creating villains in the town, who just feel manufactured and representative, rather than like real people who might just be afraid of gays. The real bad guy in the piece is the Thatcher administration, who are well represented in the film via archival footage of the prime minister and her lackeys; the film doesn't need caricature antagonists as well. But on the whole, the film brings forth a lot of great message in an entertaining package that will probably win over even the most resistant and cynical audience members. But I'm guessing if you have any desire to see this movie, you don't need any more convincing that cooperation is the best defense against oppression. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

50th Chicago International Film Festival Preview

I've been lucky enough to have seen quite a few of the more than 130 features being shown over the next two weeks as part of the landmark 50th annual Chicago International Film Festival, which, in addition to its regular screenings of newer films, has put together a great series of retrospective showings of films that premiered in Chicago at the festival. As many top-notch, more recognizable films being shown that you might have actually heard of, the best part of any festival like this is taking a chance on something you may never get to see again. If you haven't checked out my interview with CIFF programming director Mimi Plauché, she has quite a few of her own recommendations. But allow me to name-drop a few titles, some of which I've seen, others I'm offering up based on reputation.

More than 20 films have been selected as part of a retrospective of highlights from CIFF's 50-year existence, including 1971 Silver Hugo winner Family Life, to be presented by the director, acclaimed Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi; Lars von Trier's Academy Award-nominated Breaking the Waves; Roger and Me, with director Michael Moore in attendance; and three films that received their world premieres at past Festivals: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), The Idolmaker (1980) and White Nights (1985), the latter two both directed by Taylor Hackford, who will appear at both screenings.

Several longtime festival friends will present special editions of their favorite films, including director, writer and producer Oliver Stone, showing the Director's Cut of Natural Born Killers and the recently released to Blu-ray Ultimate Cut of Alexander. Other retrospect films will include 101 Reykjavik, Fanny and Alexander, Here's Your Life, a restored print of Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn, George Cukor's version of A Star Is Born, and a restored version of the silent film classic Why Be Good?, featuring the final on-screen performance of CIFF cofounder Colleen Moore.

A couple of interesting programming notes I wanted to highlight include a Spotlight on Scandinavian films, that includes 20 feature works and a program of eight shorts from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. The festival is also honoring the great French actress Isabelle Huppert by screening four of her recent great film at the Music Box Theatre, three of which will be shown as 35mm prints.

Centerpiece films include Bill Murray's latest, St. Vincent, and the new film from writer-director Richard LaGravenese, the musical The Last 5 Years (starring Anna Kendrick), with the directors of both in town for the screenings. The closing night offering will be Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon and directed by Jean Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), adapted by Nick Hornby from the novel by Cheryl Strayed.

Other notable titles include Michael Keaton in Birdman, from director Alejandro Iñárritu; Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Silas Maria; the Cannes Un Certain Regard winner Force Majeure; The Imitation of Life, starring Benedict Cumberbatch; the latest, very moving work from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night, starring Marion Cotillard; The Look of Silence, the follow-up to director Joshua Oppenheimer's Oscar-nominated doc The Act of Killing; the fantastic Danish-made Western The Salvation, starring Mads Mikkelsen; William H. Macy's directorial debut Rudderless; legendary documentarian Frederick Wisemen's latest, National Gallery (about London's famed museum); and the great doc Red Army, about Russia's famed Red Army hockey team, from Chicago native Gabe Polsky. Schedules, tickets and all manner of anniversary-related goodness can be found at the fest's website.

Among the other highlights are conversations/appearances with film legend Kathleen Turner (the Jury President this year); Charlie Chaplin film historian David Robinson, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first appearance of Chaplin's Little Tramp character; and a promising Orson Welles documentary Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles.

In addition, there are nine shorts programs, an aggressive and mostly great After Dark program for genre fans (I can highly recommend Creep, starring Mark Duplass; ABCs of Death 2, a better, more consistent horror anthology than the first version; and Australia's The Babadook). This year's line up is one of the best in the last decade at least, and I can't wait to sample more. Get out there and support your city's big film festival, people.

Music Box of Horrors 2014 Preview

The 2014 Music Box of Horrors celebrates 10 years of the 24-hour marathon at the Music Box Theatre. As always, my favorite Chicago-based endurance test of extreme cinematic love will feature the finest in digital (including one film this year shown from a Laserdisc!) and 35mm film projection, food trucks, vendors and, of course, horror films.

As an added bonus this year: direct from Fantasticfest and Mondo Con in Austin, Texas, see a brand new exhibit of original VHS art canvases from Gorgon Video. Tickets are $30 in advance, $35 at the door, and I'll be co-hosting the event along with members of the fine Music Box staff. To read up on all the films and other goings-on, as well as buy advance tickets for the full 24 hours, go to the Music Box website. Here are a few details about the full program, including a great Q&A for John McNaughton's rarely screened The Borrower. Hope to see you all there.


Noon: The Phantom Carriage (1921) — A silent film (with live organ accompaniment) directed by Victor Sjöström, who also stars. This is said to be a new 35mm print.

2pm: The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) — A film by Nick Grinde, starring Boris Karloff.

3:20pm: Cat People (1942) — One of director Jacques Tourneur's three collaborations with the legendary producer Val Lewton. Starring Simone Simon.

5pm: The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) — Directed by Terence Fisher. Oliver Reed as a werewolf in this Hammer Horror classic.

7pm: The Borrower (1991) — Director John McNaughton, producer Steve Jones, set designer Rick Paul, composer Ken Hale, and possibly storyboard artist Frank Coronado will all be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A. Special Laserdisc presentation! So many exploding heads!

9:30pm: Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) — A film by Werner Herzog, starring Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, and Bruno Ganz. This will be presented in a new film restoration of the original German version.

11:45pm: Dead Snow 2: Red Vs. Dead (2014) — Advance sneak preview. A film by Tommy Wirkola, starring Vegar Hoel, Martin Starr and Chicago native Jocelyn DeBoer.


1:50am: Nightmare (aka Nightmares in a Damaged Brain) (1981) — A film by Romano Scavolini. A psychotronic video nasty that can't let go of its mommy issues.

3:55am: Shakma (1990) — A film by Tom Logan, starring Roddy McDowall, Christopher Atkins and Amanda Wyss.

6am: Don't Look in the Basement (1973) — A film by S.F. Brownrigg. Presented by Gorgon Video.

8am: Just Before Dawn (1981) — A film by Jeff Lieberman, starring George Kennedy. One of the best of the backwoods, inbred killer films of the early '80s.

10am: Audition (1999) — A film by Takashi Miike. The first stateside hit in the Extreme Asian wave. Fifteenth anniversary screening.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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